25 July 2024, 11:49
By Elaine Butler Jun 02, 2023

Sustainable upholstered furniture – a circular approach

How can the upholstery sector take a more circular approach to manufacturing? In this article, based on researched gathered for a project examining opportunities for circular upholstery textile use in Ireland for the Irish Wood and Interiors NetworkThe Circular Design Institute's Elaine Butler looks at the developments taking place in a sector under increasing pressure to be more sustainable …  

The Circular Economy (CE) is the buzz phrase these days, primarily because multiple governments are hoping it will reduce our annual greenhouse gas emissions by up to -45%, without shrinking the economy.

Circularity isn’t a new concept and it’s something we did fantastically well until the cost of material became substantially cheaper than the cost of human labour. And because we don’t factor the cost of environmental damage into product costs there really has been no incentive for us to invest time and resources into recovering material for reuse or recycling. That is set to change.

Currently more than 49 countries globally are in the process of implementing CE plans, and the EU is ramping up its transition to a circular economy. This will not only impact those countries forming part of this economic block, it will also affect any country selling to or buying from companies needing to comply with EU policy.

Making the entire furniture sector more circular is an elephant-sized challenge, which can only be addressed one bite at a time. In this article, we’ll bite off upholstery textiles and upholstered furniture, and consider the hurdles to making both more circular and how some inventive companies are overcoming them.

What is the circular economy?
The circular economy (CE) is one approach to creating a sustainable way of operating. It is an economic model based on four key principles: minimise the use of resources; design out waste at the outset; reuse materials as much as possible; and regenerate natural systems.

There are lots of strategies that can be employed to achieve one or more of these principles, with the most appropriate one depending on factors such as material content, product type, customer base, use profile during ownership and end-of-life options.

Here are some examples of circular strategies that are most typically used for technical materials (materials that are synthetic in nature, or a blend of natural and synthetic content).

* Reuse – when a material or product is reused exactly as intended by a second user

* Repair - where a material or product receives modest repairs so that it can be continued to be used as intended

* Refurbish – where a material or product has substantial amendments made to it so that it can be continued to be used as intended

* Repurpose – where a material or product is used for another function which may require minor or substantial repairs or alteration

* Remanufacture - where a material or product is returned to a standard that is as ‘good as new’ by an expert operator

* Recycle – where a material or product is broken down into constituent parts for processing into ‘good as new’ versions of the original constituent materials

* Downcycling - where a material or product is broken down into constituent parts for processing into a material that is of lower quality or value than the original constituent material

In the CE framework there is an emphasis on prioritising strategies that interfere the least with the original product or material, as this is likely to result in lower emissions overall and help retain the value of the item.

Based on my research on applying circular strategies to upholstered furniture, I would argue that the strategies that are optimal for upholstered furniture may differ from non-upholstered items. This is primarily due to customer attitudes to reused textiles and foam, which are generally negative.

For this reason, I predict that strategies involving straight reuse, repair, refurbishment and repurposing are unlikely to gain traction outside of first-time owners or those in their immediate social circle. Instead, it is more likely that scalable strategies for upholstered furniture will involve high-intervention strategies like remanufacturing and recycling.

The road to circular upholstered furniture – challenges and solutions
To make a product more circular we must review decisions made at the material, product and business model levels. This is quite an involved process and beyond the scope of this article and so in this article, we’re just going to focus on the upholstered elements of a piece of furniture.

Also, because it’s most likely that high-intervention strategies like recycling and remanufacturing will be required to deliver desirable upholstered furniture, we’re going to concentrate on these approaches, and in particular textile recycling, which is key to circularity of upholstered furniture and still a very underdeveloped area.

Recycling of blended textiles
Most textiles are made from a blend of multiple fibre types, which aren’t easy to separate for recycling. Cutting-edge research has successfully separated blended textiles using enzymes but we are still a long way off from this being commercially available. This has caused some clothing producers to switch to single-fibre textiles for their products, which could be a trend we see repeated in the upholstery textile sector too.

Recycling of treated textiles
An additional hurdle to recycling of textiles is concern over the adverse health impacts of some of the chemicals we used to treat them, like anti-stain or fire-retardant treatments. These concerns could lead to separate collections and recycling of treated textiles, which would add an additional layer of complexity to an already-complex system.

Some companies have responded to these concerns by investing in biodegradable, toxin-free dyes and fire-retardant treatments, which, if verified by an independent third party, could offer a viable solution.

Fibre-to-fibre recycling
To date, efforts to make upholstered furniture more circular have focused on the use of materials with recycled content, including textiles.

Most of the recycled textiles on the market are recycled wool, cotton, nylon or polyester. Of the four, only recycled wool and cotton have an extended legacy of textile-to-textile recycling. Nylon is currently recycled from either post-production waste or salvaged marine waste, and recycled polyester is made from post-consumer PET bottles. Technologically, nylon and polyester textile can be recycled into new textiles, but access to this is not yet widely available for end-of-life treatment of this material.

The supply of recycled nylon, cotton or wool is not currently in jeopardy, but some companies are starting to report pressure on the availability of recycled polyester, which they are attributing to an increased demand for recycled PET bottles. I predict that we will start to see more fibre-to-fibre textiles being produced by PET and textile manufacturers, in an effort to bridge this gap.

Recycling cycles
Currently, recyclable textiles can’t be recycled in perpetuity without a loss of performance. For example, the fibre length of cotton, which is the one of the most frequently recycled fibres, gets shorter with every cycle, reducing the overall strength of the textile. For this reason, the percentage of recycled content in a textile is often limited.

Some companies have started to develop infinitely recyclable textiles for the clothing market. At the moment, use of these new textiles is limited to a few progressive clothing brands, but it is hoped that in time as economies of scale are achieved that they will become more widely available. Whether this new form of fibre will achieve the characteristics to transfer to the upholstery industry remains to be seen. As of now I am not aware of any company researching infinitely recyclable upholstery fabric.

Composting of fabric
Composting is something that we started to lean on heavily as a solution to our waste problem. It may seem like a logical option for natural textiles, but as ever, things are never that straightforward.

One of the principles of the CE is the regeneration of ecosystems, therefore, we should only compost textiles if it nourishes the biosphere that it is introduced to. Currently, natural fibre textiles are unlikely to have been dyed or finished with compostable chemicals, therefore we cannot assume the finished material is safe to compost. There are companies investing and researching into benign dyes and treatments, but their inventions haven’t become mainstream yet.

It is also worth noting that when we compost, we lose all the intrinsic value in a material, which doesn’t make sense from an economic point of view. For these reasons composting of textiles is not currently considered a preferred solution to improving the circularity of them.

Reverse logistics of take-back schemes
One of the key goals for a recycling scheme is achieving an endless loop of collection, recycling and reintroduction back into the production cycle, therefore preventing the material from ever ending up in landfill or incineration.

There are quite a few textile recycling programmes in place, but most of these are focused on clothing or soft furnishings. There was a very interesting project in Norway that recycled post-consumer clothing into upholstery textile for the office furniture company Vepa, but otherwise I am unaware of any post-consumer textile recycling programme that feeds back into the production of new upholstery textile.

More and more companies are starting to collect unwanted upholstered furniture from customers as they deliver a new order. The materials in these pieces are rarely salvaged for reuse and often end up being incinerated, but there is hope that this service could evolve into a more resource-efficient take-back and reuse or remanufacturing model in time.

Designing out waste
A lot of furniture upholstery is cut out of sections of fabric, which are then applied to the frame, either singularly or sown into sections. This process results in quite a lot of offcuts, which are generally disposed of through incineration or landfill.

It is feasible to recycle these offcuts into new products, but this is generally a niche industry that doesn’t have a huge impact on the mountain of waste produced by the upholstered furniture industry annually.

Some companies have sought to overcome this waste by using additive manufacturing processes such as 3D/digital/technical knitting, which only uses the amount of yarn required for that specific product, thereby producing zero waste.

Designing for disassembly
Upholstery is generally applied to furniture using adhesive and/or mechanical fixtures, both of which can impede future disassembly if they are not reversible or removable.

With respect to adhesives, some research has been carried out on the development of reversible versions, but it is unclear whether these reversible adhesives impact on the recyclability of the textiles that they’re applied to.

Mechanical fixtures are generally preferred in CE community, but it does depend on the performance or usability of the material after its first use cycle. Zippers, snaps and buttons can facilitate the removal of textiles for repair or washing or to allow for fillings to be replaced, but in the long term they can impede recycling of the textile at the end of its life. One promising development that could work in some settings is the use of dissolvable thread, which loses its structure when exposed to either microwaves or heat.

The ubiquitous staple which is used by most upholstered furnituremakers is a quick and inexpensive fixing method that unfortunately makes disassembly for repair or refurbishment costly and time consuming. They also result in contaminated waste streams, as staples remain embedded in timber frames and in removed upholstery, which downgrades the quality of the feedstock and can lead to health and safety concerns for waste processing staff. Additionally, the use of staples is likely to result in a low reparability or disassembly score for products when circular economy standards come into force.

In preparation for this, some companies are trialling alternatives to staples such as hooks, cords or strips that will allow for easier disassembly in the future.

Parting words
As you can see, circularity is quite a simple concept, governed by only four principles – but achieving it in a world that has spent the last 70 years fine-tuning a linear way of operating is challenging.

This isn’t a reason not to act. With more than 49 countries globally in the process of implementing CE plans and the EU ramping up its transition to a circular economy, it’s clear that this approach is gaining momentum and will have a significant impact on the furniture industry - whether you’re ready or not.

One thing is clear – companies can’t achieve circularity in isolation. Industries have become so interconnected over the past few decades that it is impossible for one to move forward without involving those it relies upon. Achieving change collectively is far slower than going it alone, so start talking with your suppliers and customers now, to avoid being left behind. You can be sure your competitors are.

(Image courtesy Chilli Pepper Designs)

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